Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. In the latest installment, chef PJ Calapa stopped by to help us solve our carrot problem with this addictive little number, perfect for all your fall menu planning.
The day that Chef PJ Calapa visited us in the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen, we were desperately trying to use up some carrots. Normally, we’d be happy to let him wander the garden and allow creativity to strike him with whatever vegetable seemed most inspiring. But today, we’ve got rules. Well, really just one. And that is: he must use as many freaking carrots as possible.
Why such a challenge? Because our carrot beds were literally overflowing with carrots. You see, carrots are a very easy thing to grow in a raised bed in an urban garden. It takes very little effort and attention to grow carrots. They don’t require pruning, or pollination, and they’re remarkably pest-resistant. Carrots thrive in full-sun exposure and, well, our garden is on the roof. So, plenty of sun exposure happening all year round.
By mid-August, our culinary director Farideh Sadeghin was overwhelmed with carrots. “They’re so overgrown it’s crazy,” she says, while we stroll through the vegetable patches. “Please just do something with them.”
So, gracefully, Chef PJ relented to her pleading. He cooked some motherfuckin’ carrots.
He pulls the root veg up at random, choosing a variety of the multi-colored selection we have growing at the moment. They all have funny names, like “Purple Elite” and “Gold Nugget,” which are short, squat little things that look more like a fat orange turnip than a carrot. He pulls a “Malbec,” which sort of vaguely resembles the rich reddish hues of its namesake wine. It makes PJ think of a story from his college days at Texas A&M.
“It’s an agricultural school, you know,” he says. “Our rivals were University of Texas, and their colors are orange. So they made a carrot that was the A&M colors, maroon.” (We almost didn’t believe this, but apparently it’s a real thing and they are more nutritionally-dense than your average carrot variety. Who knew!)
While we wander, he snips a little bit of just about every herb we have floating around out here—basil, bronze fennel, and this delightful little thing called “parcel” which is the exact flavor you’d expect when you cross parsley with celery but that everyone seems to pass over when they’re foraging out here—which will all get turned into a pesto inside.
Back in the kitchen, PJ fires up our cast iron stovetop grill pan for the carrots. He tosses them in olive oil and salt, then arranges them on the grill in an even layer. “We want them to get really charred, so they taste smoky, but I’ll end up scraping most of the black off so it’s not overwhelming,” he explains. He turns them occasionally, and they hang out on there for a good 20 minutes or more at a medium-low temperature.
While the carrots are grilling, he starts a pickling liquid for some young red onions, made of champagne vinegar, cracked coriander seeds (picked fresh from our cilantro plant that had bolted already this summer), and a bit of honey. After bringing the liquid to a boil, he adds the onions and lets them hang out on the counter.
“We’ll end up using part of that pickling liquid as the acid in the vinaigrette we’ll make later,” he says. It’s a thing he likes to do a lot at Scampi, his Southern Italian-inspired spot in the Flatiron district of Manhattan—using elements of a dish multiple ways, so that he can 1) get the most out of his ingredients and products, and 2) build up a strong flavor profile in a dish.
He brought with him a high-quality sheep’s milk ricotta from the restaurant—an ingredient he uses often—that will get an herbal boost from a generous amount of chopped fresh dill. He seasons the ricotta with salt, pepper, a splash of olive oil, and the zest of a whole lemon.
The next element he moves on to is the herb pesto. Into our teeny little food processor goes a few handfuls of basil, a few of the carrot tops from his harvest earlier, chives, and slightly toasted pistachios. He pulses it a few times, but not so much that the mixture turns into a paste. He keeps the consistency loose by adding plenty of lemon juice and olive oil.
Now that the pickling liquid has cooled just a bit, he uses a bit of it to make a shallot vinaigrette that the carrots will eventually get tossed in before making their way to the plate.
When the carrots reach the level of charred-ness that he’s looking for, he takes them off the grill and gently scrapes some, but not all, of the black skins off with his knife. In order to plate the dish the way he had envisioned it, he cuts all of the carrots to a similar two-inch length, so that they stand up on his cutting board looking like a forest of colorful little trees that got taken out at the knees.
It’s at this point that PJ does a thing that reminds the rest of us that there’s a reason why he’s a restaurant chef—and a damn good one at that—and not a recipe developer for home cooks. He decides to plate this rather humble and straightforward dish in a cheffy and elaborate way that would literally have never occurred to anyone else in the room.
Whipping out a ring mold (Do I even own a ring mold at home? Probably not.), he fills the bottom of the mold with a generous layer of the seasoned ricotta. On top of that, he spreads an even layer of the herb and pistachio pesto, adding extra olive oil for good measure. Next, standing each carrot up like a little crayon in a crayon box, he arranges the little carrot-logs so that they’re all packed tightly into a circular shape.
He carefully slides the ring mold up and off, so that all of the carrots stay standing and you can actually see the distinct layers of ricotta and pesto. To garnish, he carefully places the small rounds of pickled onion on top of the carrots, so that the shapes visible from a birds-eye-view all mimic each other. It’s a very restaurant-y plating.
When we recreate this at home, we’re definitely just going to be schmearing some ricotta on a serving platter, throwing the carrots on top, and drizzling the whole thing in pesto. But we marvel at his precision and presentation nonetheless, reminded of one of many reasons why he’s the one with a restaurant and we’re not.
It’s a perfect vegetable side dish, all things considered. The ricotta is a potent combination of herby and creamy, and the pesto and vinaigrette lend a brightness to the sweet, smoky carrots. We find ourselves in want of a good slice of bread when the plate is almost clear, so that we can swipe up all the remnants of olive oil and herbs and ricotta. If you're invited to a MUNCHIES staffer's dinner party this fall, you can probably expect this one to be on the table.